30 October 2004 | anhedonia
Disturbing, unsettling, but brilliant and spellbinding
The last film that unsettled me much like "The Woodsman" did was Todd Solondz's superb and exceedingly black comedy, "Happiness" (1998), which dealt with similar themes. But unlike Solondz, who never seems to like any of his characters, screenwriters Nicole Kassell and Steven Fechter appear to genuinely care about the people they create.
Their story's really very simple: Walter (Kevin Bacon) gets out of prison after serving a dozen years for molesting young girls. He takes a job at a Philadelphia-area lumber mill and tries to get his life back together again, while dealing with his inner demons.
What's likely to disturb many about "The Woodsman" is that Kassell and Fechter raise the intriguing question of whether someone who's done something despicable is not only capable of putting his life back together again after serving his time, but also whether society ought to allow him to do so. And to make our job even tougher, Kassell and Fechter don't turn Walter into a monster.
"The Woodsman" is aided immensely by a strong, compelling performance by Bacon. It's easily his best work, a role that requires him to underplay his character. Director Kassell isn't shy about letting the camera linger on Bacon's face and Bacon credibly brings to life Walter's suffering. It's a sensationally good performance. Bacon gives him depth and feeling and we suddenly find ourselves caring about this reprehensible man.
There are some superb supporting performances, including Mos Def as a cop, David Alan Grier as Walter's boss and Benjamin Bratt proving he really can act if he's given a good role. The most interesting supporting character is Vickie, a coworker willing to give Walter a second chance at life. Kyra Sedgwick, a gifted, yet under-rated, actress, is utterly convincing as Vickie, a woman almost as damaged as Walter is.
The Walter-Vickie relationship works because there's terrific chemistry between Bacon and Sedgwick. True, they're husband and wife, but real-life couples can fail miserably on screen. Kidman and Cruise in "Far and Away" (1992), anyone?
Bacon and Sedgwick's scenes are tender, passionate and real. Though, there's one intimate moment between Walter and Vickie that's clearly inspired by the famous Donald Sutherland-Julie Christie love scene in Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" (1973).
What makes "The Woodsman" such gripping viewing is that the film doesn't shy away from letting us into Walter's struggle. There's a particularly uncomfortable scene on a park bench as Walter comes to terms with his true nature.
"The Woodsman" is a film that deserves to be seen. It's a pity that less-than-mediocre movies, such as "Connie and Carla" and "Twisted," get widely released, while a gem like "The Woodsman" gets to very few theaters. Seek out this film. It's not an easy film to watch, but the performances are all good, the story's riveting and it's definitely one of the best, most thought-provoking films of the year.